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James Berry

The UCL MBA at University College London


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How embracing the unconventional can help future-proof your business

Traditional management principles don’t help in the current crisis. It’s time to innovate.

The events of 2020 have opened many leaders’ eyes to the unpredictable nature of business. Scenario planning and preparing for potential risks has always been a sensible approach taken by the most successful companies. Very few of these scenarios, however, had accounted for a global pandemic that would halt industries and create a new working environment.

There is no better time to embrace the unconventional then during unconventional times. Some of the most successful companies have thrived during uncertainty by accepting it and using the counterintuitive approach to their benefit.

The first stage of the pandemic was about survival and adaptation for many businesses and now, as we enter the next uncertain phase, leaders and HR teams are looking at the long-term impact and changes that need to be made.

Rethink your management principles

HR teams and businesses have learnt a tough lesson through the unprecedented challenges of this pandemic, and that is the lesson that the conventional models of business often do not prepare you for uncertainty. Companies have been forced to rethink and evaluate almost every aspect of their business, with one of the most important elements being how your employees can cope with the sudden need to pivot and adapt.

Conventional management principles have been created for a specific set of business needs, which means that they are unfortunately vulnerable when the goal posts unexpectedly (and continuously) move – a place many businesses have found themselves in the past few months.

The path ahead for companies is unpredictable, as we start to see some lockdown restrictions reimposed and customer behaviours remaining accordingly unpredictable. Alongside this, the end of government initiatives such as the furlough scheme mean HR teams are faced with continuous change too. The government’s new Winter Economy Plan will require a whole new set of decisions to be made to best manage resources and remain as efficient as possible, while also keeping a considered eye on team morale. Now more than ever, leaders and HR teams need to be working closely together to navigate the current (and future) landscape, and prepare for such persistent uncertainty.  

Create a workforce that is prepared to pivot  

One great example of how embracing unconventional management can help in uncertain times is in the hiring process. The traditional hiring method starts with a detailed job description, followed by recruitment for applicants to find the right person for that job description. Many businesses will understand this to be the most logical and traditional route to take when looking to hire. Indeed, this process works well in stable and predictable work environments, as employees are able to work to the particular demands facing the company when they were hired.

In times of uncertainty, such as we find ourselves in today, however, it is now more critical to have a workforce that is able to adapt to unexpected demands and changes in environment. An example my colleague Vaughn Tan discusses in his latest book, ‘The Uncertainty Mindset‘, highlights how HR teams could negotiate with their new hires to leave part of their role/contract/responsibilities explicitly undefined so that they can adapt naturally to the changing landscape of the company.

A key principle Tan explores in his book is how we structure goals to help create and encourage innovation. Tan believes setting objectives in the traditional manner can be too finite at times of great uncertainty and exclude the potential of innovation. Instead, he advises that teams should embrace ambiguously defined open-ended goals. By opening up the goal, you are creating a space for innovation to progress and adapt as the business and employees’ roles evolve.

Embrace uncertainty in scenario planning

Although scenario planning is not new for HR teams, the importance of this cannot be forgotten or lost during this time of change. My top piece of advice for HR managers and leaders right now is to set out your vision and target for the company. Conventionally, leaders like to set and communicate long-term targets during times of stability, but it is equally as important in these uncertain times to create your own desired path, whether that’s for the next quarter, next year or decade.

Once you have your vision and target in place, then it’s time to start forecasting for that future, whether it’s near or far, and ensure you are involving other employees across your business, drawing on their understanding and concerns for the challenges ahead. Offer the opportunity for employees to be open and honest about how the business plans to run in the future and help to assure them that it is ok to break away from convention when you’re all working towards the same end goal.

There is no better time to embrace the unconventional then during unconventional times. Some of the most successful companies have thrived during uncertainty by accepting it and using the counterintuitive approach to their benefit. It has been amazing to see how businesses have adapted to our changing times at record breaking speeds and I have no doubt that the rest of this year and next will see a new wave of management principles that no longer fear uncertainty.

Interested in this topic? Read How to create an innovative culture as we head into a recession.

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James Berry


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